Committee discusses north-south corridor

Published 7:48 pm Tuesday, October 28, 2008

The Commission on Public/Private Partnerships held a forum at Alabama Southern Community College’s Demopolis campus yesterday to discuss a proposed north-south corridor from the Quad Cities area to Mobile.

The corridor would generally follow the current U.S. Highway 43, but would allow for more traffic as a wider superhighway. The proposed corridor would be 320 miles long with a current estimated price tag of $5.3 billion.

The meeting was the second of the year for the committee, but the first held in Demopolis.

The forum was attended by Lt. Gov. Jim Folsom Jr., and chaired by State Sen. Roger Bedford (D-Russellville). Other committee members include State Reps. Thomas Jackson (D-Thomasville), Marcel Black (D-Tuscumbia) and William Thigpen Sr. (D-Fayette); State Sen. Hank Sanders (D-Selma); Dr. Ken Tucker of the Association of County Commissions; Ernest Fite of the Marion County Commission; Mac Roberts of the Alabama Road Builders Association; Pierce Boyd, the chair of the transit/transportation committee of the Black Belt Commission; Lamar McDavid, director of the finance bureau at the Alabama Dept. of Transportation; Charlie Snider, a senior consultant with the Economic Development Partnership of Alabama; and Fuller Kembrell.

“The Commission was created in 2008 through a joint resolution,” said Bedford. “The membership is composed of people appointed by Lt. Gov. Folsom, Speaker Seth Hammett and the governor. It is a broad, bipartisan coalition, and we have tremendous support from legislators — obviously, along west Alabama, but even in other parts of the state. They’ll benefit from it as well.

“From here, we’ll have a hearing in Mobile, and then, we’ll go back, probably to the Shoals — we haven’t been there yet — and that will conclude with both ends of the state. The report is due in February to the legislature, and that’s where we hope to put the structure in place and give options, what’s involved with the different options.”

The forum was a means of getting information to the public about the corridor and its proposed highways. A north-south corridor would not only bolster west Alabama, but would also ease traffic through Birmingham going to and from Mobile.

The proposed corridor is a 40- to 50-mile-wide path that runs from the Muscle Shoals area all the way to the Mobile area. Officials hope to be able to work on the proposed highway in sections, from the Quad Cities area of north Alabama to the Memphis-to-Atlanta corridor, from there to I-20/59, from there to U.S. Highway 80, from there to U.S. Highway 84, and from there to I-10 near Mobile.

“One of the questions that is not known until the new Federal Reauthorization Act is done is whether or not they will allow us to break it up into segments,” Bedford said. “Historically, they have done that, but there are some indications that they may want to do it all as one project. If they do that, it will definitely slow us down because of the cost involved in it. The more efficient way of doing it is the historical way of breaking it up into four or five smaller segments. We think it can be done quicker and more cost-effective if we do it that way.”

Local and regional representatives were excited about the potential a north-south corridor would have in this part of the state.

“It will definitely open up our area for growth and for industry to locate in here,” said State Rep. A.J. McCampbell (D-Demopolis). “We are getting some industry in the area right now, but a north-south corridor would definitely connect us with the rest of the world, as well as an east-west corridor in Marengo County, like the proposed I-85 extension from Montgomery. That would open it up here as well as in Perry County, Selma — those areas. Then, you’ve got a direct route going all the way to New Orleans going east-to-west.”

“I think it will be a catalyst for development in this area,” said Debra M. Fox, executive director of the Marengo County Economic Development Agency. “We have to see it sooner, rather than later. We’ve demonstrated the success of (public and private partnerships) on a small, small scale with the access road to the airport industrial park, so I think it could work on a statewide scale.”

“It means economic development, first and foremost,” said Dr. Ken Tucker of the Marengo County Commission. “The one impediment we’ve had for years that nobody else has had is the lack of a major freeway system or interstate system, a four-lane system. Once you do that, that’s the one thing that major business looks for. You get that major corridor, that adds one huge element to your recruiting piece to bring business and industry in.

“Even if a business doesn’t locate in Marengo County, you’ve got your second-tier, third-tier suppliers to these major industries. A lot of business and industry will locate in Marengo County, even if the initial large plant isn’t in Marengo County. The economic development will be there, and really, the overall quality of life will be enhanced as well because you’re bringing jobs; you’re bringing employment. Tourism dollars will be brought into the county as well. People traveling through will stop for tourism sites or to buy gas or to spend the night. Only positive things can happen.”

“When completed, it would have a tremendous impact on development in west Alabama,” Folsom said. “It would be important not only for west Alabama, but also for the entire state.

“I think that one point that was made here that is important is that the federal highway department will look upon this favorably because of the congested routes now going through Jefferson County, through I-65 and I-20. Whenever you design something like this, it relieves the demand for future expansion and work on that system. That’s one plus we have going out on the federal level.

“This commission — what it’s about — is setting up a permanent structure,” he said. “One thing that has lacked in the past, I think is setting up a permanent structure to build upon the future and something that will have continuity, regardless of who’s governor or lieutenant governor or whatever. Once that is set up, and you have permanent people working on it, and you have some funding and you have developed a commitment by a lot of political, business and community leaders who really want to see this thing through, then I think it will continue.

“You have a lot of support at the federal level — all of these Congressmen that this will affect will be supportive. U.S. senators will be supportive. We have the political will of the entire west Alabama legislation that will stay involved.”

“It would be tremendous,” said Demopolis mayor-elect Mike Grayson. “It’s one of those things where we’re not asking for a handout. All we’re asking for is: ‘Just give us the tools,’ with the tools being infrastructure that we will do by way of economic development. We’ll bring the business in; we’ve got the people here. It’s just something to help from an economic standpoint. It makes a lot of sense — not just for Demopolis, Marengo County and west Alabama, but literally from state line to state line.

“From a strategic standpoint, from a national standpoint, I asked the question about defense (as a means of funding the corridor project by improving evacuation routes). We live in a dangerous world. You’ve got to be able to get people quickly to and from storm evacuations. It just makes sense.”

The proposed corridor is definitely a long-term project, but the key is to get it started and moving.

“No one’s nave; it’s going to take a lot of time, a lot of work and a lot of effort,” Folsom said, “but it’s certainly achievable. A lot of (public-private partnerships for highways) is taking place in Texas; a lot is taking place in Indiana. There is an interest there, but because the highway budget hasn’t been as strong at the federal level, a lot of the money is going towards upkeep of existing systems, so it’s not like the dollars are there at the federal level. So, everyone is going to these joint public/private partnerships to make it happen.

“There are four or five ways of doing this, not just through toll roads or lease-back plans. There are other concepts that are being used, so we’re going to take a look at them. We’re not ruling out anything.”

“They’re not going to move one piece of dirt in the near future,” Grayson said. “It’s something that we’re going to have to stay on and remain committed to the project. Times are tough, but we’ve got to get this going.”